Coronavirus: new greetings and new words come into play

Coronavirus: new greetings and new words come into play

If we can't touch each other, shake hands, exchange an affectionate kiss on the cheek or even give each other a "high five", then how do we greet each other at the time of Coronavirus and still manage to transfer warmth and empathy to the other person without any kind of contact? We have to admit it: most human beings find it hard to get used to the constantly changing habits and give up the classic cheek kissing seems an almost insurmountable obstacle in many cultures, particularly the warmest ones, such as Brazilian, Italian or Spanish and especially in these days when we don't go out much and we would like to warmly greet the few people we meet, maybe while we go shopping or take our dog out. Yes, because behind a "hello" there is much more than just a greeting. We forget too often the power of non-verbal communication and today, that we cannot use certain gestures, we realise how important they are and how they determine our personality. It is not only the words, the rhythm, the interplay, the tone of voice that "talk about us", the gestures that accompany the talking as well as the facial mimicry say a lot about us, and they do so beyond our will: much of our non-verbal communication is spontaneous, not conscious.

Just think that verbal content accounts for only 7% of our communication; paralinguistic aspects account for 38%; while the remaining 55% is influenced by body language and proxemics, that is, by the distance we spontaneously keep from our interlocutors. This is why it is so difficult to adapt to the new rules of communication. As a warm and energetic solar Italian girl, I find it very strange not to greet friends as I did before the virus crown. But right now, we should try to grasp some strict rules of behaviour from our English friends, famous for their aplomb and their composure on any occasion. The "royall" coldness comes in handy in these weeks when we can't come to terms with a warmer temperament. Initially it might be unpleasant to have to revise our greetings and our culture, but this should not be scary because it is a temporary change that we might even like. Just think of being on holiday in a foreign country and having to adapt to the traditions of the place. Then you always come home.

In the last public outings before the Megxit (a slang term for the decision of couple Meghan Markle and Prince Harry to step back from their senior roles in the British royal family) the members of the Royal Family greeted their guests with elbow touches and oriental bows (both the simple bow and the famous Indian greeting with hands folded and fingers up). Prince Charles and Harry then showed how to behave in public in the days of the Coronavirus. And they are not the only ones to adapt to the new rules of etiquette: the greeting denied to Angela Merkel by the Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, during a public event in Berlin, at other times would have been a sign of great discourtesy. Indian actor Anupam Kher posted a video on Twitter inviting everyone to dust off their traditions and greet each other with the famous Indian greeting, hands folded and fingers up, Namaste, as "It's more hygienic, it's friendly and balances your energy". In Oman, the government has advised people not to greet each other by rubbing their noses but only by "gesturing" from a meter away. No tongues out or reverence for Nepal and the Philippines while in Beijing speakers suggest people do the traditional gesture of gong-shou (a fist in the opposite palm) to greet each other.

Just think that you can even wave hello with your feet: Tanzanian President John Magufuli and opposition leader Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad have tried it, as well as Iranian singer Ragheb Alama and actor Michel Abou Sleiman. In my opinion, the best way to greet each other is in the Indonesian way, which consists of simply putting your hand on your heart to show affection to the person in front of you.

Among the many things that the coronavirus has upset in our lives, there are not only greetings but also language. In recent months, we have introduced new words and expressions into our everyday language, such as "pandemic," "quarantine," and "contagion," while other words have been created. In times of crisis, in fact, new words are always born (and often they are funny).

Some of the crucial words to understand the Covid-19 health emergency range from bacterium to patient zero (i.e. "The first patient identified, studied and treated within the population sample of an epidemiological investigation"), from pandemic to infodemia (i.e. the circulation of an excessive amount of information, sometimes not carefully screened, which makes it difficult to find reliable sources), from contagion to quarantine.

As Fiona McPherson, senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), explained to BBC, in December the word "coronavirus" appeared only 0.03 times per million tokens (tokens are the smallest units into which language can be broken down according to OED linguists). The term "Covid-19" was only coined in February when the World Health Organization announced the official name of the virus, and in April, research on "Covid-19" and "coronavirus" skyrocketed to about 1,750 times per million tokens, suggesting that the two terms are now used with roughly the same frequency.

In addition to Covid-19, there are other words that have become very commonly used during this period, especially on the Internet: many refer to the social distancing that the current pandemic has forced us and the resulting limitation of human contact. Just think of the "virtual apertives", the "Covid parties" or the expression "Quarantine and chill", which makes the verse to the famous slogan of Netflix that invites you to relax watching a TV series, or even the "elbow bump", which would be the greeting with the elbow to replace handshakes, kisses and hugs, now forbidden. It seems that in Poland "coronavirus" is even used as a verb, while in the United Kingdom children born or conceived in this period are called "Coronababies". My favourite, however, is "Covidiots", which refers to those who do not respect the rules of hygiene and social distancing.

It is not surprising that many of the words born in this period or words that have taken on new meanings from the current situation are ironic or used for satirical jokes and images. In fact, Robert Lawson, a sociolinguist at Birmingham City University, explains that "there is a linguistic creativity that has not yet entered the official dictionary, but which reflects the role of language as a mechanism of defence and elaboration of trauma. These innovative uses allow us to name whatever is happening in the world in real time. And once you can name the practices, events, social conditions around a particular event, people have a shared vocabulary that they can use as a shortcut". A shortcut that allows us to lighten a difficult situation and find comfort in a laugh.

What do you and your language exchange friends think about these new ways of greeting and speaking? Do you also greet each other differently and have you introduced new words into your everyday language? Let us know in the comments!

Written by: Martina Sassi, Staff Writer Language Exchange